The newly inaugurated handset unit that emerged from the incubator of Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa, showed off the fruits of its labour on Thursday.

The INQ1, designed by INQ Mobile and built by Chinese electronics firm Amoi (which also built the 3 Skypephone), puts the focus on internet-based communication tools like Facebook.

The device, which is the first of many to be built by a number of manufacturers, packs HSDPA connectivity and a 3.2 megapixel camera into a slider form factor with a large-ish external screen size and hard keys.

The hardware is designed to bring the price down, putting 3G gadgets in the hands of the masses, whilst the main focus is on software, specifically integration with social networking applications through agreements with Facebook, Skype, Windows Live Messenger and among others.

INQ Mobile is headed up by Frank Meehan, who was previously general manager of global handsets and applications for Hutchison, where he was responsible for procuring more than 9 million 3G devices each year. Meehan revealed that the company has spent two years developing a software platform that sits on top of Qualcomm’s BREW system, which brings 3G down to the mid-to-low-tier and features multi-tasking, and is designed to remove interface clutter by relying on a carousel-based UI.

“We’ve already got affordable data pricing and key services, but now we need to address the usability,” said Meehan. “The telecoms industry has become preoccupied with addressing the digital camera market and the music market and it has forgotten the core focus of communication.”

Straight talking Kevin Russell, CEO of 3UK, the first operator to carry the INQ1, elaborated on the company’s strategy. “The big handset vendors’ main focus is on the incumbent operators because that’s where the volumes are. But these incumbents do not want to embrace the internet in the same way that we [3] do,” Russell said.

The 3UK chief revealed that the operator has around 800,000 regular users of internet communications services at present – a figure that has tripled in the last 12 months and has been driven by the success of the Skypephone. The close partnership with Skype started about one year ago this month, and Russell said that 30 per cent of 3’s retail handset sales are to customers who want Skype on their handset.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a guest appearance at the London launch event (via video) to hammer home the importance of social networking on mobile. “We have about 16 million mobile Facebook users right now, and the INQ1 should help us to double that number,” he said.

In anticipation of great demand for the services, Russell said that 3UK is stepping up its network expansion programme in partnership with T-Mobile to have built 13,000 sites by the third quarter of 2010. This will give the operator 99 per cent population coverage and allow HSDPA download speeds of 14.4Mbps.

The INQ1 is free on a contract basis at £15 per month, inclusive of unlimited data and 75 minutes, which can be upped to 300 minutes for an extra fiver. On prepay, the handset costs £79.99 and a £10 per month top up gets you unlimited data and £5 call and text credit.

“While the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android handsets are fantastic phones and give great access to key services like music and email, they are expensive, targeted at high end users and cost operators a fortune in subsidies,” said Meehan, arguing that INQ’s strategy is to put this functionality in the hands of the masses.

Although the 3 Group will be one of the main carriers of these homegrown devices, INQ said it would also involve other carriers in a bid to drive down acquisition costs for operators.